Endless Wars in Infinite Universes

By Adam Rivett

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I saw Iron Man in a Canberra multiplex in mid-2008 with two academics far smarter than me, both of whom thoroughly enjoyed the film and weren’t irked at all by its flaws or stupidities. The intelligence of my friends more than likely allowed them, in this scheduled mental down time, to see the film for what it was and ask of it nothing it could not give. One of these friends commits much of her time to old and under-read Australian novels published decades if not centuries ago, which the present moment contrives – in its boundless noise and demand, its unthinking shoulder-shrugging vulgarity – to render archaic and powerless. The other friend, a mathematician, works for a big American company and can’t tell me what he does exactly, which means this know-how, currently unspecified, is likely turned to technological ends that will either fashion our destruction, or, more optimistically, create something like the tech of Tony Stark’s perfected Iron Man suit.

The flaws and stupidities I found in the film were, to be honest, minor. I possibly ascribe them to a bad mood at the time. The film was sleekly, frictionlessly enjoyable – above-average product in an era of severely lowered expectations for a fan of sci-fi / action. Downey Jr. was a deft bit of casting. The special effects were very solid, and the physics of those flights – you believed a man could fly, even if he was no longer a man – convinced. The third act – that frequent home of diminishing returns – seemed like a noisy flailing, full of dumb fights and needless explosions after the comparative elegance and excitement of the earlier action sequences, but for the most part it was pretty good.

Still, the idea that this film would be the first shot in an endless war was laughable. The Dark Knight was out in a few months, and we were all saving our excitement for that. That ‘we’ compromised mainly the staff of the Borders bookstore, which could be found in the Canberra Centre only an escalator down from the very multiplex showing Iron Man. The cinema, as always, was the escape. The bookstore was the cause of the bad mood.

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I’d move through the store – long gone now, along with the chain – and ponder the utter shit people bought. That the store occasionally sold a good book or CD or DVD seemed incidental, if not entirely accidental. Respect for the book itself – the medium, the idea of words on pages – can take a hit in a place like that. That our interactions and even loves are fundamentally transactions is a truth we work hard to avoid, and life at its finest can seem unbound by such crudities, but at Borders everything, absolutely everything, became a unit waiting to be sold. The manager was a fitness junkie who spent every available non-managerial minute at the downstairs gym, bulking up. His contempt for art manifested itself in some legendary mispronunciations of titles at the morning run through, of which the most minor but most continually amusing was Tim Winton’s current bestseller Breath, which he every morning referred to as Breathe. A small thing, perhaps, but done so every day for two months – one letter changing the world – it was at first grating, then funny, then like a telltale mangling that haunted the poor man. For a solid stretch of time we sold more units of that surf-covered object than any other book, and I never once heard him call it by its right name.

On lunch breaks, uncertain what to do with myself and bored with the Canberra Centre’s charms, I’d often wander the shelves of the store, dazzled by the glut of our stock, picking out what I deemed the good stuff. Comics were ideal for this – a kind of low-impact engagement, lending itself to skimming. Story was there if you wanted it, but otherwise you could just tune out and enjoy the endless and unendable battles taking place in the mainstream titles.

As a teenager I’d loved this stuff, Batman and Spider-Man in particular. The move to the ‘grown-up’ world – the world of Crumb and Clowes, Hernandez and Ware, via the cerebral superhero variations of Moore and Morrison – is, to a comics snob, a familiar one, and the virtue of seemingly having one of every title meant there was plenty to pass a lunch hour. Still, the section was still mostly genre fare. There was, however, one title in particular I gravitated towards, with some ambivalence. It was called Civil War, and ran through individual issues of Spider-Man, Black Panther, Captain America, and numerous other comics between 2006 and 2007. Like other Marvel and DC ‘events’ in the recent past it promised major repercussions for the universe of its protagonists. Such cross-title events are familiar to any semi-regular comic book reader – all promise unthinkable shakeups and all end up, in one form or another, as elegant desk-shuffling. The titles of these enormous cross-promotions are for many well-known: Crisis on Infinite Earths, Secret Wars, Knightfall, Infinite Crisis. The list goes on. I’d look at this new title – now stolen from the month-by-month slow drip of softcover releases and given cohesion and book length page count – and think: Jesus, this will never end. I didn’t follow the story – involving a fracture in the Marvel universe that eventually pits heroes against each other – as the title crossed more books than lunch break realistically permitted. I popped in and out, seeing death, unmaskings, revelations, tears, people forever changed. Or so they said. I knew they never would, not really. The form and its audience demands stasis masquerading as change. Civil War was everything that had made me walk away from genre comics.

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I didn’t see The Incredible Hulk when it was released a few months after Iron Man in mid-2008. A certain confusion – or confusion begetting pointlessness – reigned. Didn’t we already do this, and not too long ago? This wasn’t the Hulk as Eric Bana via Ang Lee, who in his editing and transitions actually used the panels of a comic book with a rather dunderheaded literalism. This was someone else: Edward Norton. Was it necessary? I suppose I decided it wasn’t, and caught up with it later, though I can’t remember when exactly. Perhaps on some brainless Sunday afternoon viewing, and maybe not even all of it, maybe just pieced together via some YouTube clips; the fights, not the boring talking bits with Liv Tyler and William Hurt. However much I’ve seen seems unconvincing, in the way that Norton in the role seems unconvincing. Norton once infamously badmouthed a film he’d starred in (the utterly pointless and generic remake of The Italian Job) before it was released – he seems to have an adversarial relationship with his own fame, and you can see in his performance as Bruce Banner, he whom rage turns green, the growing awareness of an actor whose choice has gone south on him quicker than anticipated. The whole film feels a little like that: bereft of higher purpose, its participants a weary huddle. The big ending is like a video game cut scene that will not relent, as the two CGI beasties – The Hulk’s opponent here is called The Abomination, which is hilariously literal and unimaginative, and also seems like some joke about how non-fans of the material see this stuff – bashing away at each other for fifteen minutes or so before The Green One pulls out the finisher. Lest anyone think working in this genre is easy, and that any hack with a camera and a credits-hogging FX crew can churn out a passable imitation of quality, compare the graceless bombast of the film’s conclusion to Iron Man, which at least seems framed and staged with some care. Even trash requires discretion, and even chaos takes a little grace.

The Hulk of Ang Lee’s earlier film was if anything too graceful – observing flowers, his face a self-pitying scowl. He raged with restraint, almost forced into the deal. Lee’s take on the character infuriated most fans. This time around, as required, shit got fucked up majorly. A Borders co-worker who bothered to see it upon release had only one takeaway, performed for the store’s back room in disbelief. At a crucial point in the film, he said, shaking his head, The Hulk, needing to level up to save the day, bellows ‘Hulk Smash!’ before striking the ground, causing it to crack open, upending the bad guy.

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Strength struck me as a curious and irresolvable issue in comics, right from the start. The Hulk is a kind of Saturn, furious and indestructible, who eats not his children but, somehow, always manages to direct his rage against arranged enemies. He was stronger than everyone. You could drop a bomb on him and still find yourself with a battle not yet won. Where did The Hulk fit into the larger world of comparative powers? Was this a fair fight? It’s odd how, no matter the power of the hero, in the comic book world it all comes down to a punching contest. One of the great Superhero titles of the 80s, The Dark Knight Returns, gave readers the unimaginable: a fight between Batman and Superman. That one guy was a very clever and very rich ninja wearing a movement-restricting suit and the other guy was a God deigning not to destroy his adopted home planet didn’t matter. Through plot contrivance, they ended up standing toe to toe, going punch for punch. A relatable scenario for fundamentally unrelatable figures.

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I saw Iron Man 2 at the Astor Theatre a few months after its May 2010 release, on a double bill with Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. A strange double bill, perhaps, though Scorsese is, among other things, a shameless aesthetician, a physically demanding camera eye. See here, see there. An aesthetics of brutality swiftly conveyed. Raging Bull, in its fervour and pain and forthrightness, is an action film with the inevitable shame and compromise left in, when others might have excised it to better irradiate the fantasy. Teddy Daniels and Tony Stark are both broken men, pursuing obsessive ends. Teddy’s quest ends in a lighthouse, his identity shattered, cruel reality revealed. Tony Stark ends up fighting up a guy with big electric whips played by Mickey Rourke. Genre shapes our beginnings and our endings.

Something inherently bloated in the nature of franchise-building surfaced early on in what soon enough came to be known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It was only three films in and teases and foreshadowing had begun stretching the film out to unreasonable lengths. If anything, the success of the later entries in working roughly as stand-alone films while also gathering previous narrative strands plus simultaneously laying trackwork for future sequels is due to the curiously pointless and idle Iron Man 2. The studio just got better at it, noting how too much planning and not enough actual purpose can stall a film, no matter how exciting what’s coming up next might be. Iron Man 2 does nothing, advances little. Its most important shot is its last, revealing Mjölnir (Thor’s hammer) buried in sand, surrounded by black-clad agents. For an audience it was either an orgasm-inducing promise of films to come or an unpronounceable weapon that seemed to make other people excited for an unknown reason.

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One inarguable fact of the superhero movie boom is that films like Shutter Island are increasingly difficult to make. The complaint is by now old and familiar, yet no less true. Scorsese at least has a willing DiCaprio, his golden ticket to decent budgets and studio attention, without whom he might struggle to fund his non-sequels, his films devoid of third act boss battles. Of course, Scorsese is no innocent, and carefully strikes a balance that allows passion projects to stand against more commercially minded work. He’s an auteur who’s twice committed that supposedly laziest of sin: the remake. Even worse, he’s even made a sequel, despite The Colour of Money being about as loose a sequel to The Hustler as possible. Nonetheless, in this new world where apparently a movie based on the Warcraft video game is something people actually want to see, walking into a money man’s office and trying to sell a script not based on an established property (novels don’t count, for obvious Producers-as-illiterate-savages reasons) is a tough way to make a living. It’s one thing for a nuanced or unusual film to share a double bill with a big dumb blockbuster, and trust the audience to appreciate both for their merits or failings – to believe in a world where one doesn’t necessarily extinguish the other. It’s another to safely assume that a double bill in a decade’s time will have an equivalent of Shutter Island – big budget but smart, well-crafted and affecting, powered by celebrity but still humanly relevant – to play after intermission. You don’t even have to be a purer-than-thou cinephile to feel distaste for the superhero genre. Innocent dollars thrown its way might be crippling future masterpieces. These binaries are crude and reductive, but that mid-level film, like the much-vaunted midlist of a publishing house, is a home to many treasures. For some reason I always think of a film like Peter Weir’s adaptation of Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast – odd, difficult, flawed, and unimaginable on Hollywood’s dime without Harrison Ford’s star power. Of course, the star system isn’t really in operation anymore, not like it was in the 80s, and as it had operated from cinema’s inception. A film like The Mosquito Coast would never get made now, and not with a tenth of its equivalent 1986 budget.

That there’s a compromise between art and commerce is obvious – what matters now is where the compromise sits, and the nature of the demand commerce makes. Mark Ruffalo plays DiCaprio’s partner in Shutter Island. While fulfilling other obligations closer to his heart, he would soon enough be part of the MCU, replacing Edward Norton, and already the third Hulk of this new century.

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I didn’t see either Thor or Captain America: The First Avenger at the cinema upon first release, in May and July of 2011 respectively. There was sickness, pregnancy, a lot of staying home and waiting in rooms and uncertainty. I might have gone to the cinema once or twice at the time, but I don’t remember. Later, when things had got to the point where staying at home and watching a lot of DVDs was some comfort, I finally caught up with the next two instalments of Marvel’s world building. Thor was ridiculous, slight, and in sufficient possession of redeeming levels of self-awareness. Another aloof God, fittingly cast. He never seemed in danger, or convincingly in love, or genuinely aggrieved at his father’s cruelty. Sometimes you just a watch a film with a distant recognition, a dazed near-enjoyment, like an overheard conversation taken in through the eyes. The film had some decent jokes and its vision of Asgard, a gold leaf Valhalla, was amusing. Both Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings seemed like actresses who, in their own way, could do with far better roles. Having grown up with an image of Kenneth Branagh as the great populizer of Shakespeare, it seemed a curious diminishment to see him proficiently if indistinctly helm a Marvel film. Another compromise.

Captain America: The First Avenger was another matter – a genuinely good film, old-fashioned and daring and juggling its inherent stupidity and retrograde derring-do with something like sincerity and charm. If comics at their purest are frozen iconography burning with suppressed energy – shield, sword, fall, crash, fist, cape – then CA:TFA (comic books movies are a gift to fans of ridiculous acronyms) brings the solid fundamentals to life: genuine good and genuine evil, played with a straight face. Working with dunderheaded inarguables – an American flag shield, hiss-worthy Nazis – the film proceeds as if making the case for one last good man, one final noble cause. How deep can a purely one-dimensional film be? If it did nothing else, it resonated. And in Chris Evans the MCU found its greatest asset, someone who always seemed to have enough breath after throwing an indestructible shield and catching it again to deliver a terse but not over-written witticism. Charm is casual and effortless, and Evans never broke a sweat.

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But it wasn’t like escapism was escapism anymore anyway. Flicking around TV one night in search of anything I came across an Adam Sandler film that somehow found time amongst its banalities for a subplot about the very disease that had led to so much time on the couch, almost never leaving the house. Time wasn’t moving at all, and everything came and went with the same weight, just as, when you hold your breath for a long time, the outside world that usually imperils the flesh falls away and all you’re left with is the conscious effort of the lungs. The house was a lung, and in this void, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger were just entertainments among many others, some better and some worse and all, finally, made from the same material. Enjoyable though, even curiously necessary.

I looked forward – in a dispassionate, sober way – to The Avengers, the film that all these blocks had been building towards. Not as much as I was looking forward to The Dark Knight Rises though. There was, in 2012, many potential distractions for grownups requiring some slickly resuscitated childhood memories, however dark these entertainments now were, however effortfully adult and serious.

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I saw The Avengers on its opening weekend with my father and stepmother in the biggest cinema in Melbourne that wasn’t an IMAX screen. I wore 3D glasses and made myself an unseemly sized bag of pick and mix lollies and generally behaved as one should when watching something that prizes sensation above all else.

There’s a kind of beauty to The Avengers, of Yeats’ ‘click of a well-made box’ variety. Can you use the word ‘humble’ to discuss a film which grossed more money than any other in 2012, and fundamentally tilted the axis of our cinematic world? Possibly. And that’s what the film’s pleasures are: humble. A small character moment being the most enjoyable thing in a film supposedly dedicated to the grandest spectacle possible was, and still is, unique. You can debate the goal of that Yeatsian box (or, if you will, Tesseract) and the kind of clicks said well-made box is making, but if you wanted an example of good writing and the pleasures of connection selling a fundamentally untenable premise, this is the film. Its pleasures aren’t even purely cinematic at times – its lighting is even and flat in places, its camera work and editing functional instead of daring. Its joys lie in watching incompatible skills and strengths – the founding illogic of any superhero team-up – be gracefully arranged to work together. You can point to Whedon’s way with dialogue and talent with ensembles, or that the film was simply satisfying as the closure of a phase of commercial filmmaking without (at the time) many modern comparisons, but really, it’s the corny and foolish nature of its necessary drive – get these strangers together to fight other strangers – made so natural, such a given, that elevates it into something more than just a crass and bombastic entertainment. It seemed logical for those few weeks to watch (and in many cases rewatch) characters now familiar to us hang out, trade lines, save the day. There was an ease to it that it had no right possessing. Any claims for a greatness above that claim strike me as false. Any denigrating of already established charms strikes me as churlish. To speculate any further why it was such an enormous hit is to guess your way uncertainly into the minds of people who, collectively, spent one and a half billion to see it. Hype obscures, snark self-harms.

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Comic books, above all, trade in a kind of closed door policy – the long unknowable road of past narrative, which at this point in comic book history resembles a mirror now shattered into millions of shards. Back stories, alternate histories, side issues, spinoffs, retcons. At some point when writing anything like this there’s always a question you ask yourself: how much comic book lore do I discuss? People might see a term like Cinematic Universe and, unfamiliar or bored with the source material, imagine an already busy and overcomplicated story to which they have no point of access and quickly give up. There is a kind of conviction amongst collectors of minutiae that not only is knowledge of the minutiae reward in itself, but that the cataloguing and precise ordering of said minutiae will, eventually, reward the collector with a true narrative, a true cohesion, denied to their less persistent and attentive cohorts.

“Even trash requires discretion, and even chaos takes a little grace.”

A lie, of course, and a particularly vicious lie with comics. The collection fever only begets further collection – the well is deep, but never hits water. You’ll stack your variations and alternative takes in a neat pile, and there they’ll sit, as uncommunicative as your friends from school and your friends from work sitting next to one another at a dinner party. Life won’t cohere, or even momentarily fall into line. There’s no line that can be drawn between them all. Not only that, the collection of the variations, that which would presume to offer clarity, only muddies the water. Life, perhaps, is a matter of conviction hovering around a few knowable entities, and a bemused acceptance of the billion unknowables flying daily by.

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I watched Iron Man 3, released in May 2013, in an unsatisfactory but necessary form. Wanting to leave the house but unable to because of my required care of the little person I now shared said house with, and in a curious state of desperation for that week’s much-discussed pop culture staple, I downloaded what a website assured me was a high quality camrip version of the film, which while watchable by camrip standards was average by most others.

The sole point of many blockbuster films is to be an expensively and expertly crafted piece of visual and sonic assault so overwhelming that taking your money and not giving much back won’t seem mean-spirited and cold. My camrip viewing was, I suppose, a subversion of that gouging commercial imperative, if not also a subversion of my preferred habit of watching films that were, well, watchable. While my daughter had her midday nap I sat on the living room floor, eating a plate of mashed potatoes and honouring necessary narrative commitments.

The film in question is now considered either a sly undercutting of genre expectations via Shane Black’s irreverent sensibility – e.g. turning one of Iron Man’s greatest enemies, The Mandarin, into a hired actor – or a complete letdown for its inability to deliver said genre expectations satisfactorily. I think it’s a little of both, to be honest – no-one decides to be irreverent with action scenes, and the final showdown is perfunctory and a little dull. How witty do you want to be, how cutting and unexpected, when you’re helming a film that eventually made 1.2 billion dollars worldwide? It’s a poor forum for that sensibility, to be honest – the blockbuster having it both ways is no fun, not like this at least. The film’s pleasures are casual, and incidental to its overt purpose.

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Iron Man is, of course, not a particularly interesting character. Robert Downey Jr. is a deft and charming actor, and the suit looks cool, and the dream of flight is the nightmare of the humanly unobtainable, and scientists in movies are always enjoyable because the gift of montage bestows upon them the ability to turn answerless drudgery into a half-minute of results-driven wisecracking. But, having said that, the character is a glib moneyed cheater who, even when brave and self-sacrificing, seems more surface than centre. A pleasure then, in Iron Man 3, to watch him tremble a little, to shudder, to bleed and fear and get a lucky win. To renounce a lifestyle and convert himself and destroy his toys. Still, when he drives off at the end of the movie, he’s not a changed man, he’s a changed Iron Man. Masks can never be dropped, roles never relinquished. This Iron Man will die, sure enough, killed in some future or near future MCU entry, until he’s not dead any more. A contract will simply expire, and another actor will take his place. But the suit can’t die. That won’t be allowed.

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I watched Thor: The Dark World on my laptop a few months after its November 2013 release. Another download, although this time of a higher quality. Propped up in bed after a long day at work, and with the laptop actually on my lap for a change, I watched in that familiar fatigued state of half-consciousness, the head one nod away from sleep, the active mind taking things at a surface level only. This is the state that does away with subtext, the mental equivalent of an overworked parent asking for just one thing at a time, please. This is probably the perfect state to watch something like T:TDW (an acronym not as good as CA:TFA, though we do have the birdlike call of A:AOU coming up, and the non-Marvel BvS:DOJ will also be discussed a little later). The film is a pleasing product, a shiny surface, a timewaster that yet again brings the universe towards the edge of annihilation before tucking it in to bed. Christopher Eccleston, once a tragic and utterly convincing Jude Fawley, is here decked out in an alien anonymity, seeking a vague, half-convincing revenge. Thor is still too remote a character to carry a film by himself. Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings still seek better work. More than any other film in the MCU, it exists on the dangerous edge of the merely functional, for no grander reason than to keep gears moving in service of future films. Iron Man 2 at least seemed ungainly and confused in the way it tried to have it both ways. Thor: The Dark World is more calculating, more of a business decision poorly dressed.

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The Marvel films are, for the most part, pretty good. This is my thesis, my non-grand claim, my mid-point conclusion. I build no great tower of hyperbole to venerate, or inverse tower to epically damn. They are solid, well-crafted, enjoyable. They are marriable efforts. Is it wrong to be so unenthused yet humbly pleased by our available entertainment in 2016? This is a love song to ambivalence, to compromise. This is an anniversary present to a person you settled with, but do not dream of or truly miss when they’re not around.

What’s a dumb night out anyway? The MCU is the home to good mid-level films, solid programmer fare that also just happens to make a half a billion per release at the very least, even when your least favourite Avenger is fighting a disposable villain for forgettable reasons. In a degraded era for the blockbuster – no system-bound Walter Hills or John Carpenters crafting happily in chains, and no bonkers visionaries like an 80s James Cameron to elevate the game – they are satisfactory. Sure things are good nights at the multiplex, that house of shoulder shrugs, half-attention, self-trickery.

On the popular (and genuinely excellent) YouTube channel Every Frame A Painting, creator Tony Zhou has on more than one occasion compared clips of older or more successful films against clips from recent Marvel films to illustrate a point. For example, Zhou contrasts how the cuts in a key scene from The Empire Strikes Back make their point aesthetically – in a slowing down or quickening of cuts to capture anticipation and disappointment – while the artless and functional cuts from Ant-Man prove their point with dialogue and performance only, the editing and staging working against the purported meaning of the scene. I’m not sure if there’s a good reason for this particular animus (he has also previously called out the unimaginative camera movement in The Avengers) but it’s not one I necessarily disagree with, even as someone who passes for a fan of this stuff. There are some vivid moments of cinematic organization and execution across this work – the digitally composited tracking shot that opens Ultron is one giddy and preposterous example – but the real pleasures of the MCU is almost, dare I say, post-aesthetic. You can go to Mad Max: Fury Road for something visionary, or watch the Raid films to see hand-to-hand combat extended to exhausting lengths. Both movies, however overblown and more subtly assisted by digital trickery, are essentially physical experiences, dense with tactility and the actual that make action an overwhelming reality, a direct charge at the mind’s fussiness. The MCU, even in a half-pace effort like Thor’s clunkily named sequel, trades in calmer, more unambitious, but more pleasing wares.

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I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier on its opening night, April 3, 2014, at my local suburban cinema, all art deco fakery and aspirations to middlebrow-blockbuster negotiations. Having spent enough (and probably too much) time establishing how comfortably non-superb this series of films is, I now want to say that Captain America’s first sequel is a genuinely great film, even when it falls prey to the need for a slightly more familiar and anonymous megadestruction finale. It’s clever, fast-paced, legitimately amusing at times, and its action is staged with ferocity and precision.

Captain America, that name so inviting of potential cringe, is the great asset of Marvel’s world building, and never more so than when lifted out of the moral clarity of his WWII birth and dropped into Winter Soldier’s murky contemporary conflict. The grand irony of Cap’s greatness is that part of what makes him great is that (all superserum-aided strength aside) he’s just a regular guy, and action heroes are at their most enjoyable when they’re still, in some sense, real people. John McClain is a real person in Die Hard, more or less, but less of a real person in every subsequent film.

We love fantasy and we like escape but, paradoxically, we like the grain of the real to be somehow present, because we are stupid and human and don’t know exactly what we want, and therefore want it both ways. It’s enjoyable to watch the moderately human Chris Evans in a heavy-on-the-black resdesigned Captain America suit fight his way through HYDRA agents and other assorted goons, as we need the recontextualized glimmer of the human amidst the fakery of the imagined to remind us what the human is again. Humanity presented plainly, unadorned, just wouldn’t do.

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One gripe from detractors of the current comic book movie boom that irks me is that the commercial repercussions and artistic bankruptcy of all this franchise-focused over-marketed stuff will spell, soon enough, ‘the end of cinema’. That a focus on established properties and sequel after sequel – new films built solely to be followed by as many sequels as possible, all with the nodding assent of a pre-sold audience – is somehow a death knell to an otherwise thriving and artistically minded artform is, I think, nonsensical and ahistorical. To complain that there are fewer selections for the grownups on a Friday night out at the movies is one thing, quite another to deny the gross and impure and hacky swamp from which your cinephilia was born. In some curious way the current glut of Hollywood remakes and reboots and sequels and shared universes is like the start of cinema, a second coming (no qualitative assessment present in that religious phrase). Cinema has always insisted upon serialism, from anything as magnificent as Feuillade’s Les Vampires to the churned out Charlie Chan detective romps, now sitting in unwatched piles by the dozen. Just watch The Thin Man, that screwball masterpiece and home to cinema’s greatest married couple, and ignore the five sequels that slowly lose their charm with each instalment. Consider the eight Mr. Moto films starring Peter Lorre, all released in a span of three years between 1937 and 1939. Consider that lowest and most desperately opportunistic beast, the horror film, which will turn moderate audience response into a dozen films someone, somewhere, might one day watch. Cinema has always been advanced charlatanism, working out how to feed an audience by slow drip, and planning the next step once the first signs of approval are heard. There are only degrees of craft, weekly grosses, and the unguessable matter of what lasts. Totally fine to imagine the now global Marvel properties, mini-empires of tirelessly interconnected entertainment, eliciting no more than a shrug half a century from now.

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I watched the Guardians of the Galaxy in the same suburban cinema a few months later, in early August 2014. Time can’t jump around forever. Eventually, settled, you mark out time by the local – park, pub, cinema – and hope that your late session puts the new release on the multiplex’s biggest screen. Small things. Cheap Tuesday nights. Grab something from the supermarket across the street instead of buying from the lobby. Rituals.

The trailer suggested Guardians would probably be the worst film I’d ever spend good money on, some goofy misconceived space opera involving characters no-one beyond comic book tragics had heard of, one of whom was a raccoon with the voice of Bradley Cooper. It seemed a garish miscalculation, and deeply unamusing. Attending with something like brand loyalty (‘this is all part of the story’) and minor curiosity (‘but which aspect of the story?’) that the film ended up being enormously enjoyable and playful and tender and sweeping was, of course, a lovely surprise. Really, other than a few passing allusions and the appearance of Thanos, it might have been its own non-MCU story, just like all the other stand-alone non-Death of The Cinema movies.

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The success of Guardians suggests everything can be connected with everything. Nothing is dead. Nothing is gone. Nothing can be discounted or discarded. Nothing is too ridiculous. Nothing rests. Everything – now rebranded with that deadest of words, property – is one meeting away from reanimation. Every film contains clues for future films. Every poster is a key. Every production photo contains buried treasure. Casual lines of dialogue might offer foretastes of stories to come. Every poster or trailer or set photo can be in turn converted into numerous press releases and articles and 10 Things You Missed lists and YouTube videos where overeager home video artists freeze frame all there is to be freezeframed and scan the halted image for evidence to back up theories. The movies speak to each other, tell each other they’ll be coming soon, and will be worth the wait. Each MCU film has at least one post-credits scene, and sometimes sneaks another in mid-credits. Future threats loom. At the end of The Avengers, Thanos, big purple deathdealer and key to much future MCU plotting, appears, smiling. He appears again in Guardians of the Galaxy, bellowing then smiling. He appears once more at the end of Age of Ultron, professing weariness with the other villains unable to kill off these pesky superheroes and telling us he’ll do it himself. He’s waiting, and he’s been waiting for a while now. He’s waiting still. Any minute now, just a few more stand-alones and spinoffs, and he’ll be ready to take centre stage, the validation behind all this waiting, the rationalisation of all this analysis.

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I watched Avengers : Age of Ultron on a cold Wednesday night during the film’s opening week in April 2015, in a cinema that was almost completely deserted, perched in the left corner of the fourth level of a shopping complex, a food court just outside its entrance. I was avoiding work on a long book review, making Ultron a fitting night’s entertainment.

Ultron is a film that gets a bad rap, often dismissed as a bloated mess that’s so busy juggling dozens of characters and laying tracks for future sequels that it barely establishes its own identity or purpose. To a large extent this is true – it opens in media res and never settles into a coherent story, its villain is enjoyably sneery but is never a fully developed character before being quickly done away with, and it contains some truly baffling narrative detours that, unlike earlier films in the series, don’t hint at what’s to come as much as stop the present narrative dead to do the job. It’s a noisy, pulverizing film, and a lot of it didn’t work for me on first viewing. A second hasn’t improved it much, but it’s so thoroughly a Joss Whedon film in its sensibility and execution – its dedication to hang out scenes, group play, one-liners, comedically-charged action – that most of the failings can be forgiven. And it has a sweetness and unabashed corniness to it, so that amongst the business moves and financial projections something like a heart can be discerned. There are small moments in the film – The Hulk piloting a jet fighter, alone and crestfallen, or a conversation in an abandoned forest between Ultron and Vision moments before one destroys the other – that seem positively graceful and nuanced compared to not only their MCU cousins but the comic book film culture that surrounds them.

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Of course, like many works of art or near-art of half-art or art-commerce or pure commerce or whatever, Ultron spends a lot of its time in conversation with other superhero films. Not necessarily the MCU films it’s explicitly connected to, but the wider culture, particularly the grim and gritty DC film adaptations that took Christopher Nolan’s wildly effective if somewhat straitened and ponderous template and ran to the bank. That Ultron’s final set piece involved not just mass destruction but an attempt to save fleeing civilians was widely seen as a corrective measure to Zach Snyder’s Superman adaptation Man of Steel, which spends an ungodly amount of time focusing on high-flying fisticuffs that level entire skyscrapers, without much apparent concern from the filmmakers or the hero of the film about the occupants. If Man of Steel was a humourless grind, it was a perfect adaptation for many comic book fans who since the mid-80s breakouts of comics such as Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns had come to prefer their pages dour, ultra-violent and ‘adult’. I see Ultron as a rebuke to that entire world. Whedon’s cinematic sensibility – while occasionally flatly lit or artlessly cluttered, often pushing for witticism over the right place for that witticism – is a tribute to colour, joy, buoyancy, and grace under pressure. Like Whedon’s own wonderful run on the Astonishing X-Men comic book title, what’s most treasured is wit, compassion and a tolerable self-awareness. The ridiculousness of what’s being presented is acknowledged subtly, then committed to wholly.

“We love fantasy and we like escape but, paradoxically, we like the grain of the real to be somehow present, because we are stupid and human and don’t know exactly what we want, and therefore want it both ways.”

When I think of the anti-Ultron (it’s also my vision of anti-cinema and anti-everything else) the film that comes to mind is this year’s enormously popular Deadpool. It’s everything teenage boys want to be – tough but knowing, smart-alecky but unemotional, and utterly and numbingly committed to pointing out its own self-awareness rather than simply and humanly being in the world. It’s everything I loathe about comic book culture and I wanted to shoot the film into the sun. That it was boring and unengaging and nowhere as funny as it thought it was is one thing. That it was praised and cherished by fans and non-fans of the genre is what killed me. I felt myself flattened into my seat as I watched it. I’d trade anything in Deadpool for just one of the small human beats Whedon smuggled into his two Avengers films. What bothered me most of all was how pandering callouts to the inherent stupidity of superhero culture took the place of an actual ability to deliver thrills, or a convincingly staged action set piece, or pretty much anything else. Like the laziest po-mo novels, all the metamoves seemed to be employed due to an inability to write well in the first place.

Deadpool is what happens when people know they’re being tricked but don’t have the imagination to seek solace elsewhere. You have to invest, risk embarrassment, or tap out. Give the MCU this curious praise – the machinery of commercialism that makes them run seems, after the work of hands, somewhat loving and genuine.

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I watched Ant-Man on a plane back to Australia in early 2016, occupied with packing and then flying and then landing and then being nowhere near a cinema with English subtitles when it was first released in mid-2015. Miniaturization of screen suited the material in obvious yet pleasing ways. It’s minor, goofy, disposable, charming. If it wasn’t part of a somewhat troubling commercial onslaught, it could pass for a cultish B-movie. Ant-Man is no big deal – in fact, it’s a lark. Its contribution to cinema is the ongoing capturing of Paul Rudd’s face, saved from bad rom-coms and indie throwaways and placed smack bang in the middle of a heist movie. Confronted by mortality, there’s a calm acceptance to Rudd’s reactions, to his eyes. This isn’t the stoicism and inhuman resolve of every post-Wayne or post-Eastwood hero, cruel mentors who’ve trained every action viewer to treasure a joke in the face of a death, and to see tears and fear as weakness. Rather, Rudd views the ultimate achievement of walking through the fire as the ability to shoot an amused and conspiratorial look at the audience as the flames threaten the walker. That’s the film and minor MCU entry in one – end of the world, no big deal, we’ll have this wrapped up in twenty minutes.

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One very valid claim about superhero films, only briefly negated by Ant-Man, is that they lack humanity. Consider the biggest non-MCU comic book movie of the year, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The last thing anyone needs is another outraged listing of the its numerous failings, its illogical plot and terrible performances and baffling screenplay and abhorrent morality and joyless vision dissected with a patience suggesting a fan who hates, but with a fervour and patience approaching love. That the film will in years to come be a case study for everything rotten about the genre and Hollywood generally seems to me inarguable, but it’s greatest failing is this: it eliminates the human. Its towering figures thump each other for no convincing reason, then call the whole thing off with a would-be humanising twist so weak that it suggests the filmmakers have never known love or shared a family dinner. There are a thousands of stinkers that are enlivened by a song, a dance, a joke, a smile, a shot – by some trace of an actor or cinematographer or otherwise unengaged professional momentarily asserting their presence, their wit or style, in a system that has no place for it. BvS:DOJ is the willing extinction of any such desire so as to achieve an art of total seriousness and darkness that is utterly, wholly barren. Getting to the end, you can’t imagine wanting any more of it, so strong is its anti-life equation. Which is a problem for sequels, of course.

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I watched Captain America: Civil War two days after it was released, in the same cinema I watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but not the same seat. It seemed, at the time, like a kind of conclusion to my superhero movie fandom. I still enjoyed the MCU stuff, more or less, and the Russos had brought to the Captain America films genuine flair and wit – auguring well for the enormously anticipated Infinity War showdown, which they were also slated to direct – but it seemed like the film was reaching a point where its own logic was about crack, irreparably. The film’s greatest achievement, and its biggest sign of trouble to come, is a lengthy all-in brawl at Leipzig Airport consisting of two superhero teams. It’s a witty, orderly set piece. No-one is aiming to kill, as these are mostly old friends and allies of said friends, so punches are pulled and the inherent ridiculousness of having mortals and Gods all mixed up together and deciding things with their fists and lasers and webs at close quarters is skirted around. But what good will a punch do when the battle is in the stars and the soldiers can bend time and space? The great promise of comics – the undoing of these sureties, the worlds within worlds, the psychedelic 60s Jack Kirby drawings and beyond – was that anything was possible with paper and pencils, and the movies were comparatively hamstrung in portraying this. My suspicion is what was wonderful and bonkers on the page will, on the screen, not quite work, and will be stuck looking a little ridiculous. Much of the imagery of comics was, I suspect, not born to survive the transition.

After its airport showdown Civil War ends, tellingly, in a small room with a few blokes punching the shit out of each other. Don’t let the coarseness of that description have you mistaking my attitude for scorn – it’s brilliantly produced nonsense, and, coming at the end of so much story-telling and build-up, involving and resonant. But there’s a final note being struck here, a goodbye to all that. The time for concerns on that scale is probably over – we’re moving into the wider world, and catching more and more figures of unimaginable power in our net as we proceed.

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And what of the MCU after this? Doctor Strange is next, sometime later this year. He’s a magician, more or less. Travelling the astral plane, the mind’s desire writ large upon the workaday world. All that. The trailer shows him folding a city twice if not thrice, Inception-style. Time should consider itself duly warned – the date I eventually see the film might not be the actual date at all. And how he’s going to get along with the man with the super-strong shield and the guy who’s really good at shooting arrows anyway? A sympathy extended, verging on pity? His role in a superhero fistfight is hard to imagine. Strange isn’t exactly a household name, but an extensive pre-release campaign should sort all that out, again turning what was once subculture ephemera into mainstream conversation.

And after that? Well, these are at least known: Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War – pt. 1 and 2, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel. There will be more, of course, all grosses pending. As I’ve pretty much given my money up in advance, consider me among the future investors, ensuring future investments in turn. I hope my expenditure will be duly rewarded. Amusing to know all these films have planned release dates, exact to the day. When I say I’m looking forward to Avengers: Infinity War – the cosmic conflagration this entire thing’s been pointing towards for the longest time now – I can say I’m looking forward to a film whose first volume will be released on May 4th, 2018, with its second a year and a day later. Military campaigns have been organized with less precision. It’s like an inexhaustible drummer keeping time into endless night. You don’t have to dance, of course. I do, will and probably shall however, as tired as I am, feeling my bided time and narrative patience reaching a satisfactory end while the story simultaneously billows outwards, forever, pre-booking dozens upon dozens of future cinema visits without end, an endless series of movies taken in by a consumer without frustration or expectation, all the way to the very end of stories and storytellers.

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